Why Aren’t More Black People in AA?

By Dee Young 01/17/16

AA saved me. There is one thing that has always nagged at me, though. Why aren’t there more Black Americans in meetings?

Why Aren’t More Black People in AA?

For 27 years I have been a grateful member of AA. “Amazing Grace” sings my story, “I once was lost but now am found.” 

There is one thing that has always nagged at me, though. Why aren’t there more African Americans in meetings? My recovery schedule includes Chelsea and Greenwich Village meetings. On average, the number of Black people in attendance is one—or none. In a cultural mecca like Manhattan, why is there such a glaring lack of diversity?

AA demographics have always been difficult to chart accurately due to the anonymous nature of the program. According to an AA 2014 membership survey Caucasians make up 89% while African Americans only 4%. Seeking perspective, I researched our nation’s African-American population. According to the 2014 United States Census Bureau, Black people make up 17.6% and whites 70.4%. 

Okay, so that helps explain why far fewer Black people than white attend meetings but that doesn’t help me feel any more comfortable about the disparity. Curious about possible explanations, I turned to members of my Greenwich Village home group and asked, “Why do you think there are so few Black people in our meeting?”

MEMBER 1 (Black Male)

Maybe, in a way, AA is like churches. Even the most liberal churches in the city, Black or white, are almost completely segregated. People say it is the most segregated hour in America. I also think that a lot of minorities have a mistrust of institutions. Who can blame them? Our country has a long history of racism. 

I have one friend who said he felt invisible at meetings because there were so few Blacks. I guess I can see how some might feel that way. I rarely think about it. So much of AA was revolutionary for its time. Two conservative Republican white guys came up with AA in 1935. For the time, it was wildly inclusive. 

Every now and then I can get bogged down with questions like these but I remind myself that when I came in I was desperate to stop drinking and that’s all I was thinking about. I am so grateful for my sobriety.

A friend of mine who is Black said he didn’t like when he was the only Black person in a room. Every now and then I’m aware that I’m in a room where I am the only Black person there but I don’t think about it much. I know that if I really wanted to be around more Blacks, I could go to a meeting in Brooklyn or in Harlem or anywhere there is a Black neighborhood. But I don’t know if I would feel any differently if I did that. The truth is I’ve never experienced any hostility about race at any meeting I go to.

MEMBER 2 (White Female)

I think that the populations in AA reflect the general population. The meetings that I go to have some Blacks, but they are overwhelmingly white and I think the same could be said of the neighborhoods they are held in. I suspect the reverse is true at meetings in neighborhoods where the population is more African American. If it has to do with neighborhood population, then racism may not be the reason. But, the fact that Black people and white people tend to live in different neighborhoods is probably rooted in racism. 

Maybe we could increase diversity if a group of Black and white alcoholics in recovery wanted to start a special-interest meeting that emphasized integration—like gay groups and gender-specific meetings. But for AA as a whole to focus on integrating meetings, that might constitute endorsing a cause and engaging in controversy. Our primary purpose is to stay sober, whether or not we do it in racially balanced groups.

I don’t doubt that white people in meetings vary in their attitudes about, and behavior toward Black people, but in the 40 years I’ve been attending AA meetings in Greenwich Village I have never been aware of any white person being openly hostile or unwelcoming in a meeting to a Black person because of race. As a white person though, I am not qualified to say what Black people want or don’t want, let alone their reasons.

MEMBER 3 (White Male)

I don’t totally understand why our meetings aren’t more integrated but honestly, I have never seen members doing anything to discourage anyone from coming. Our meeting is very welcoming. My guess is that in the same way that Black churches are very segregated, maybe they don’t want us whites around. I wish I knew the answer. It is weird that there are only a couple of Black members.

We do have mixed-race people here but I don’t know if they consider themselves Black or white or just don’t think about it. I think segregation is very deep-rooted. Recently, I heard a doctor say something I really liked and it was powerful. He said, “I’m a surgeon and when I open somebody up and I repair their brain, there’s no color in there, I don’t see color.” I think the only way to increase diversity in the meetings is to be open and welcoming but we are already. I guess we need to just continue to be that way and whoever wants to come will come. AA is a program of attraction not promotion. It’s for those who want it.

MEMBER 4 (Hispanic Female)

People are welcoming, in theory, but when you see a Black person who comes from a different socioeconomic level, a different culture, and they start sharing their experience, a white person inevitably gets offended, rolls their eyes and sighs, which becomes very unwelcoming. But, now that I think about it, that’s not as much about color as it is about class. Still, as a woman of color I feel bad when that happens.

MEMBER 5 (Black Male)

I think a lot of Blacks and Latinos don’t get help because of a macho cultural thing. They think, “I don’t need help. I have to be a real man.” I have two good friends who are Black and have the same amount of sobriety as me, and we’ve had that discussion, like, “Where is everybody?” But the bars we tended to go to were vastly white with just a few Black guys. I could’ve sought out all Black bars but I think that would’ve been self-segregation. I think maybe the bigger part of it is that in a lot of Black families we’re raised not to ask for help. We’re not supposed to air our dirty laundry in public.

MEMBER 6 (White Male)

I’m 73 and 18 years sober. If I were sitting in a meeting and five newcomers counting days raised their hands, if one was a Black man, I’d probably go over and offer words of encouragement but as far as sponsorship goes I’d probably steer him to another Black guy. Why? Because I can’t help everybody and I get the best results sponsoring guys who resemble me when I counted days. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

Now that I’m saying that, I’m thinking about my experience of sponsoring guys over the last 17 years. I’ve helped married men when I was single. I’ve helped gay men even though I’m straight. And on a few rare occasions when I felt a Black man has trusted me, I was able to sponsor him even though I’m white.

Alcohol and drugs couldn’t care less about financial status, dress code, sexual orientation, or skin color so now I’m wondering why, in the spiritual rooms of AA, have I had finicky reluctance to help the fellow of a different race? I remember how overly sensitive I was as a newcomer—just one big exposed raw nerve. I’m sure a Black newcomer visiting AA for the first time would be sensitive to the slightest hint of prejudice. Then they might discuss that experience in their community, which might prevent others from seeking out our help. But I can’t speak on why there aren’t more men of color in New York City AA meetings, I can only speak on what part I might have played. It’s an interesting question and I’m going to give it more thought.

MEMBER 7 (Black Male)

I feel like my alcoholism trumps—I mean it’s more than me being Black. In the mid-1970s, gays felt alienated from AA and started their own meetings. A lot of people were angry or suspicious about specialty groups but Bill [Wilson] went along with it. He was like, “Yeah, if that’s what keeps you sober, do it.” But I don’t think similar things happened with the Black community. 

On the other hand, you know those tapes of the two guys, Joe and Charlie? I didn’t realize till last year that Joe was Black. They sound so country! [Laughs] I found out that when Joe got sober in Arkansas, he had to stand at the back of the room, and wasn’t allowed to share. I’m like no way I could’ve put up with that. I’d be like, “Fuck you.” He knew he had to get sober so he put up with that but I’m not that guy. No fuckin’ way.

Dee Young is a pseudonym for a writer in New York, who last wrote about AA, God and Facebook.

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